Let me tell you a little something about a particular Christmas tradition.
It’s one that started way, way back in Ancient History. But for now, we’ll just say the modern Christmas Cake, filled with dried fruits, honey, and nuts, can be traced back to at least the Middle Ages.
In Britain, a Plum Porridge dish, containing oats, was eaten on Christmas Eve. As dried fruits, honey, and spices began to arrive from the Mediterranean region and Portugal, these were added to the oat mixture, and became Christmas Pudding, or Plum Pudding (soon all dried fruits were referred to as Plums). Over time, the oats were nixed, and eggs, butter, and flour were added. The cake was either boiled, or baked by wealthier families. At this point, (early 1600’s) it was discovered that fruit could be preserved in sugar, leading to candied fruits. Now that the cake featured spices from an exotic locale, it became associated with the story of Christmas, of the three Wise Men who brought the gift of spices to Christ. Thus, the English began to give out pieces of cake to poor carolers in the streets.
During the late 1700’s, plum cakes (or any dried-fruit cakes) were illegal, outside of consuming them at Christmas, Easter, weddings, christenings, and funerals. To this day, a look in any traditional English or Irish cookbook gives recipes for a wedding cake that is none other than our Christmas Fruit Cake.
So, in keeping with tradition, or at least a part of one point in history, I’ve baked a Christmas Cake. It’s delicious. It features a number or dried fruits and nuts, and let me tell you, though it may last at least a month, this is not a cake to pass back and forth re-gifting to all the neighbors and long-lost relatives. This is the real deal. One that may soon become a traditional Christmas Cake in your family.
Unsalted butter, for the pan 3/4 cup flour 1/4 tsp. baking soda 1/2 tsp. baking powder 1/4 tsp. salt ½ cup brown sugar, packed 6 oz. dried figs, halved 6 oz. crystallized ginger, diced 1.5 oz. dried cranberries 1.5 oz. dried cherries 10 oz. walnut halves, lightly toasted 6 oz. chopped hazelnuts, lightly toasted 3 eggs 1 tsp. pure vanilla extract Set the oven rack in the middle position and heat the oven to 300 degrees F. Butter a 9-x5-loaf pan, and press a piece of parchment paer into the bottom and up the sides, to creat handles, for ease in removing the cake from the pan. Butter the paper. In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, baking soda, baking powder, 1/4 tsp. salt, and brown sugar. Add the dried figs, ginger, cranberries, cherries, and nuts. Toss to combine well. In a small bowl, beat the eggs and vanilla. Add this mixture to the fruit and nut mixture, and stir to combine. Scrape the mixture into the prepared loaf pan, and smooth the batter into an even layer. Bake until cake is deep golden brown, about one hour. Rotate the pan halfway through baking, and if necessary, tent the cake loosely with foil, if it appears to be browning too quickly. Transfer pan to a wire rack and cool completely, before removing from pan. Wrap in cheesecloth soaked in brandy or rum, and then wrap tightly in foil. Feel free to experiment with different combinations of nuts and fruits, if you like. The cake can keep for about a month, if you can resist eating it!